The Work of Finding Out
Writing is limitless in a real way; not in a gushy, exuberant, romantic way. I spent years playing guitar and practicing, but there is only so much that contributes to musicianship. Does running scales up and down make me better? Yes. Does learning a new song? Yes. Does learning the words to the song? Yes. Learning about the composer? Probably. Learning about the time period? Tangentially. Food in that time period? Um. The cultural significance of food in general? Wine? Grapes? Topography? Soil? If I ran back up to the last item of considerable value and started back down a different track, the result would be the same. The composer? Probably. The time period? Tangentially. Geopolitics of the time period? Geopolitics in general? Military history? World War II? Stalingrad?
Curiosity quickly becomes superfluous to making music, particularly without the pretense of researching the composer or piece. But the American Civil War is fascinating because it’s fascinating. Trees and flowers are an untapped wealth. Geography and politics, social policy of twentieth-century America, the Russian Revolution, philosophy, poetry, fiction, criticism, fantasy, and science all offer a pathway into another’s mind and all the knowledge and imagination therein. Ta-Nehisi Coates describes letting opportunities to learn slip by in his book We Were Eight Years In Power. He hears a reference at a party to “the Continental Divide” and allows it to pass, though unsure what the Continental Divide is. He writes:
“I knew even then that whenever I nodded along in ignorance, I lost an opportunity, betrayed the wonder in me by privileging the appearance of knowledge over the work of finding out.”
When I think of the enormity of the determination Coates describes, I think of all that small knowledge packed and fossilized into a great boulder. I imagine straining muscles and heaving like Atlas to lift it all. Diving into the writing of Coates’s early Atlantic years reinforces that impression. His titanic gravitational plunge into all things Civil War from antebellum tariff politics and slave power through the collapse into Redemption is extraordinary to read. The effort is monstrous. But that’s not the challenge Coates proposes.
What he describes is more like picking up all the shells on a beach. Where does the beach end? What qualifies as a shell? Only those on the surface, or do I dig? What happens if the ocean washes some into the surf? The problem is not an unfathomable weight, but a limitless scope, an overwhelming quantity of tiny and diffuse particles, boundless variations and endless tiny gestures.
Allowing no knowledge to escape unchased is admirable, but it can’t be possible. There’s so much knowledge. Out the window right now is an infinity of stuff I don’t know. What wood comprises the construction fence adjacent to our apartment building? What machine do I see in the barren lot? Where does the Q16 bus end? What model car is that? Or that? Or that? How old is Queens Boulevard? From what is the word “boulevard” derived? It looks French. How would one pronounce it in French? How tall is the office tower across the street? How many people live in Forest Hills? What is their average age? Median income? Demographic breakdown?
Coates challenges his curiosity. Picking up every shell on the beach is unnecessary. He need only notice them and pick up those of interest. The challenge is to be more interested, to remove obstacles to curiosity and clear its way. In hindsight, playing guitar (for me, if not for others) became one of the obstacles, a means by which my vision was narrowed. Writing seems to ratchet up the water pressure and open the floodgates. Anything can become a topic, digression, tangent, reference, or metaphor. Everything is relevant.